Blazin' Saddles: 2011 remembered
As the new year fast approaches, Blazin' Saddles takes a look back at the key moments of the 2011 season.
With 2012 set to be the year of the super-team, it's perhaps fitting that three of the main protagonists of the past 12 months will all be riding at the same team next year. So, what better way to get this 2011 review underway than through this BMC trident?
Cadel Evans took universal plaudits in July when he became the first Australian to win a Grand Tour, leaving it late – the penultimate stage, in fact – to seize the Tour de France yellow jersey from the frail shoulders of Andy Schleck and ride into Paris as King Kangaroodoudou. For all those who said Evans was finished and would never win cycling's biggest prize – including Saddles himself – it was a moment of comeuppance. Yes, things may have been different had Alberto Contador not hit peak form in May's Giro, but the Australian still had to prove himself as the best rider over three weeks in France, and he did that with a gutsy ride, often devoid of team-mates and support.
Evans may have taken the season's biggest crown, but the best all-round performer was the winning machine that is Philippe Gilbert who, like a top Grand Slam tennis player, roared to success on all surfaces, be it grit, cobbles, hills or the flat. His famous Ardennes triple set the standard for what was a ridiculously supreme season for the Omega Pharma-Lotto man, who became so dominant on steep punchy finishes (such as the Caubert, Mur de Huy and Mont des Alouettes) that he almost became a parody of himself. Only promising whippersnappers Marcel Kittel (17) and Peter Sagan (15) got close to PhilGil's tally of 18 victories – and the best came last, when Gilbert was named Belgian Athlete of the Year in the week ahead of Christmas.
One of the moments of the season came when Gilbert outsprinted both Schlecks to take Liege-Bastogne-Liege – and it was not the last time in the season that 'Frandy' would occupy second and third places on the podium. Despite Contador's off-year in the Tour, Andy (his Galibier heroics aside) proved he's only good for second, riding to his third successive runners-up spot on the Tour and cement his place as a modern day Luxembourgeois Poulidor. Just over his shoulder – as usual – came Frank, in third. Still, a docu-film about the Schlecks – The Road Uphill – was made, although its sequel – The Road Downhill – is tipped to be a long, drawn out affair that will only disappoint.
Joining both Evans and Gilbert at BMC next year will be Thor Hushovd, who like Evans one year previously put the so-called 'world champion's curse' to bed with a strong season that peaked in July when he replaced his rainbow stripes for the maillot jaune for a seven-day stint, while climbing - yes, climbing! - to two stage victories in the process.
It was a resplendent season for Hushovd's Garmin-Cervelo team, who notched wins across the board while underlining their dominance with victory in the Tour's team time trial. Earlier in the season, Johan Vansummeren surprised the world with victory in Paris-Roubaix, while Tyler Farrar finally managed a maiden Tour scalp, joining Garmin team-mate Dave Zabriskie as the only American to win stages in all three Grand Tours. It was a feat matched by Germany's Andre Greipel, who despite spending most of July grumbling about Gilbert's preferential treatment at Lotto, managed to pounce once to complete his own collection.
Farrar's stage victory in the Tour marked a return to form for the one rider perhaps most deeply affected by the season's darkest moment – the tragic death of Belgian Wouter Weylandt, who crashed fatally on day three of the Giro, exactly a year after winning stage three of the same race. One day after Weylandt's terrible passing, the season's most poignant image played out as an emotional Farrar joined his good friend's Leopard-Trek team-mates to cross the finish line in Livorno together to pay tribute to one of cycling's good guys.
Weylandt's death was not the sole tragedy of season, with Spaniard Xavier Tondo dying in a freak accident at his home while training. Just as he was returning to form, Argentine climber Mauricio Soler crashed horrifically in the Tour de Suisse and will probably never ride a bike in the peloton again. Luckier was Dutchman Johnny Hoogerland, whose dramatic crash in stage nine of the Tour provided one of the most shocking moments of the season as the Vacansoleil rider picked his torn torso up off the floor after a French TV car rammed Juan Antonio Flecha and sent a sprawling Hoogerland flying into a barbed wire fence at top speed.
Following his tearful appearance on the podium after the stage, Hoogerland provided the quote of the season: "We can be happy that we're alive. It's horrible. I did what felt like a few somersaults. I don't know where the car came from. Before I knew it, Flecha was on the ground and there was nothing I could do. I landed on the fence and I looked at my legs and thought, 'Is this what cycling is about?' I have the polka-dot jersey but I'm going to spend the rest day in a lot of pain."
Hoogerland became an instant hero in the peloton – but even the charismatic Dutchman would not deem a polka dot jersey as ample reward for having his body torn to shreds. Talking of polka dots, Frenchman David Moncoutie two months later secured a record fourth consecutive king of the mountains title in the Vuelta – not bad for a hermetic vegetarian veteran so bland he's called 'The Postal Worker'.
Riding in the same breakaway as Hoogerland on that fateful day in France was none other than Thomas Voeckler, who, despite being pipped for the stage victory, arguably benefited from the incident as he rode into the race lead. Just like he did seven years previously, the plucky Frenchman defied expectations and battled for 10 memorable days in yellow. Protected by his spirited Europcar team – and in particular Pierre Rolland, who took the white jersey as well as an epic queen stage stage to Alpe d'Huez, France's only victory in the race – Voeckler cemented his status as the housewives' favourite, becoming one of his nation's most recognised sportsmen in the process.
Also carrying the weight of a nation on his shoulders was Britain's Bradley Wiggins, who did wear yellow in France, but sadly the yellow of the Criterium du Dauphine and not the Tour. With his Dauphine overall victory in the bag, Wiggins entered the Grande Boucle full of hope – but left it full of dope (or painkillers) after crashing out with a broken collarbone in week two.
Wiggins put his bad luck aside with a podium finish in the Vuelta a couple of months later – but no one expected the Briton to be bettered by his compatriot and Team Sky team-mate, the unheralded Chris Froome. The South African-born, Kenyan-raised Froome's epic duel with Juan Jose Cobo on Pena Cabarga was the best moment of the Vuelta, but the Spaniard held on for a narrow overall victory just months after almost quitting the sport because of poor form. Still, this bonanza wasn't enough for his team Geox-TMC, who folded a few months later.
Also folding was the all-winning HTC-Highroad team of Mark Cavendish, who secured his first ever green jersey in Paris before coming from nowhere to win the World Championships in Copenhagen. Cav's myriad stage wins in the Giro and Tour showed he is still the man to beat in the bunch sprints – although the less said about his sun-blushed Vuelta, the better. Cavendish was not the only HTC rider to shine, with Aussie Matt Goss taking Milan-San Remo and Tony Martin usurping Fabian Cancellara as the world's best time trialist.
German Martin beat the Swiss powerhouse in both the Tour and Vuelta ITTs before taking his rival's rainbow stripes in Copenhagen (and completing an HTC double in Denmark). Earlier in the season, Martin had also proved his versatility with overall victories in the Volta ao Algarve and Paris-Nice. As for Cancellara, perhaps the season's biggest surprise is that he didn't win anything besides a couple of routine chrono scalps in which Martin was absent. So dominant in the 2010 classics, an emasculated Spartacus was reduced to a super-domestique role for the Schlecks at Leopard-Trek, who folded themselves after just one turbulent (and ultimately fruitless) year in the peloton.
Taking Cancellara's Tour of Flanders crown was Belgian Nick Nuyens, whose win in one of the major spring classics was another of the surprises of the season. With Contador's clenbuterol case dragging on, Nuyens' victory was a welcome tonic for the beleaguered Bjarne Riis, whose hopes of winning the Tour as a DS looked increasingly slim. Worried about being excluded from the Tour, Bertie excelled in the Giro, winning the race at a canter but simultaneously blowing his chances for July. The Spaniard was cleared to race, but a combination of peaking too early and being floored by Vladimir Karpets made a fourth title an impossibility.
The 2011 season was peppered with other moments of sheer brilliance and memorability: Vasil Kiryienka's solo to Sestriere in memory of Tondo; Voeckler's bike handling heroics as he jumped down a ridge into a car park; John Gadret actually winning something; Alexandre Vinokourov's sad exit from the Tour; Edvald Boasson-Hagen's Tour double making it four for Norway; Vincenzo Nibali's downhill masterclass in the Giro; Liquigas' downhill supremacy as they took four of the top five spots in one early stage of the Tour...
The list goes on. Roll on 2012!